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Pakistani women’s political journey

Gulmina Bilal

One of the opening lines of the movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding is that the man may be the head of the household but the woman is the neck. Wherever the neck turns, the head turns too. “This may be true in some cases and aspects, but one is not too sure when the political participation opportunities to Pakistani women is studied on International Women’s Day.

The past five years have been very eventful for women’s political participation as the movement oscillated between highs and lows, the highest low being the recent suggestion to reduce the seats at the local level. In 2001, with the completion of the local bodies elections, 49,049 woman councillors entered the district assemblies, in 2002 women entered the provincial and national assemblies according to the percentage of 21.8 and 17 percent, respectively. Cameras clicked as women, some in duputtas and some in burqas, took the oath to serve the country. Women were made parliamentary secretaries mostly, but also provincial ministers in all the provinces except the NWFP. The Frontier government repeatedly assured the public that “very soon” a woman would be made part of the cabinet, but to this day the promise remains to be fulfilled. A woman was even made a federal minister.

All these measures evoked various reactions in different sections of society, depending on their orientation. The liberal elements welcomed it and termed it as a long-overdue phenomenon, the conservatives condemned it, while the media glamorised it. The reasons for these different reactions would be interesting to study and discuss, for now one would like to focus on the reaction of three main political forces in this equation: i.e., the political parties, the male parliamentarians and the woman parliamentarians themselves.

One must say that as a political institution the political parties have behaved very pragmatically. Rightly looking at the increase in women’s seats as opportunities, they prepared their lists and took full advantage of the possibility to increase their numbers in parliament. Even the parties which had termed the increase in women’s seats as a move by the Musharraf government to appease the West and condemned it as a cosmetic measure, also occupied the seats reserved for women. Some political parties whose stalwarts were disqualified by the graduate condition sent the stalwarts’ wives, daughters and sisters to the assembly, thus ensuring that their voice at least reaches the assembly even if it was not heard. Thus, all the seats reserved for women have been occupied in the federal and provincial assemblies. It is interesting that political parties do not consider giving women party tickets as worthwhile investment but they made full use of the reserved seats option.

Once the women entered parliament, they had to confront the attitude of their male colleagues, which was actually a case of history repeating itself. If one casts an eye over Pakistan’s history, the First Constituent Assembly of Pakistan was graced by two women, one of whom was Shaista Ikramullah. In her book, From Purdah to Parliament, Mrs Ikramullah narrates that the very first time she spoke in the assembly was on the very first day during the debate on the proposal that the Constituent Assembly should meet once in Karachi, West Pakistan, and once in Dhaka, East Pakistan, given that East Pakistan was in majority. Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan was opposing this idea on the grounds that Dhaka was a provincial capital and if the Constituent Assembly met at one provincial capital, other capitals would also demand that the assembly met there. Mrs Ikramullah defended the Dhaka proposal, only to have the prime minister get up to reply, “Women never understand practical difficulties.” Mrs Ikramullah retorted: “If women had considered the practical difficulties in their way, we would never have supported the demand for Pakistan.”

Fast-forward to the present assembly, where woman parliamentarians are not given developmental funds, they are not given time to speak, mysteriously, the mikes in front of them do not work, and where remarks like “women are the sweet dish of the present democracy” are passed. All this in addition to derogatory remarks that are later expunged from the record. At the very least, this is a cause for reflection for people who are today marketing women’s presence in parliament as a progressive step.

At this point, it is also important to mention the pressures exerted on woman parliamentarians by male parliamentarians, the media and the public at large. This pressure is applied by regular evaluation of their performance by the question, “What have you done for women’s issues?” First of all, there is no such thing as “women’s issues.” There is no separate gynaecological section of issues that is the domain and concern of only woman parliamentarians. Issues are public issues, and not men’s and women’s issues. Women might be able to empathise and identify more with some issues than men, but by no means can we neatly stack public issues into a His and Her pile.

So, it is unfair that woman parliamentarians are asked this question, and are expected to defend their presence in parliament based on what steps they have taken to address “women’s issues.” Women constitute 50 percent of the population, they are individuals, have an opinion, have an interest and are as much part of a political process of a country as men are.

Unfortunately, this pressure is also self-applied as women parliamentarians themselves have been asking themselves as to what have they done for “women’s issues.” They have come up with the self-demoralising answer of: nothing. Zilch, zero. One reads column, after column, article after article, penned by woman parliamentarians on how they haven’t done anything for the women of Pakistan. While evaluation of one’s performance, coupled with a strong sense of responsibility, is important, it is worth pointing out that the challenges before them are many.

The three most difficult challenges before the woman parliamentarians are:

– Being a woman in Pakistan.

– Being a woman in Pakistani politics.

– Working on issues which challenge domination by the Pakistani male.

These are challenges that cannot be overcome in a flash. The nation saw ample proof of this from the fate of the Sherry Rehman Bill, and recently the Kashmala Tariq Bill.

However, on this International Women’s Day, when women around the world take stock of how far they have come and how far they have to go, one can conclude that, politically speaking, the Pakistani woman has inched her way forward. She is stumbling, but even this struggle is important.

All said and done, it is important to state that the mere presence of women at the different tiers of government sends a very strong psychological signal that is best illustrated in an advertisement of a milk company. In the ad, children are asked what they want to be when they grow up. The usual responses of “doctor,” “engineer” and “pilot” are given. One little girl, answers, “I want to become an MNA.” Atta girl!

Source: The News

Date:3/8/2005

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